By Doron Krakow
Putting the Pieces Together
Not long ago I marked five years since coming to JCC Association of North America. Though I was a long-time veteran of the professional Jewish community, I had never worked at a JCC and my familiarity with the field was limited. As expected, I was eager to move quickly up the learning curve and on seeking the advice of several veteran leaders, was given to understand that through visits to three or four JCCs across the field, I would get the general idea. And it would be helpful to know that, typically, most JCCs have beautiful swimming pools and high-end fitness facilities which help attract the members who constitute much of the JCC community. So, off I went. A few weeks later, with these visits under my belt, I felt ready for the work that lay ahead.
Not long thereafter I had occasion to visit a fifth JCC—and something unexpected happened. My experience there was wholly different than what I’d previously experienced. An outlier? Perhaps. To test the theory, I quickly made plans to visit a sixth and a seventh. Though there were certainly common threads, I couldn’t escape the possibility that if I truly wanted to know JCCs, a handful was far too small a sample.
Five years later I’m looking back on well over a hundred JCC visits and when a new colleague, who had similarly come to JCC Association without prior experience in the field, asked me to provide a general overview, I smiled. Reflecting on my many journeys to JCC communities from coast to coast, perhaps the most common element is that no two are the same. Each JCC, each Jewish community, is a unique reflection of setting, leadership, circumstances, and resources. Don’t get me wrong. We share a common purpose—to be the Jewish community’s town square. But the essence of each Jewish community—with its unique strengths and challenges—is its own.
That certainly helps explain some of the things I’ve seen and heard as my journey up the learning curve continues. Recently, I visited a JCC here in the New York Metropolitan Area with no fitness center, no pool, and not a single member. The Marion and Aaron Gural JCC of the Five Towns is located in three unique facilities right in the middle of a major Jewish population center—an area once comprised largely of Jews identifying as Conservative and Reform and which today has become increasingly Orthodox. The Gural JCC’s pre-school, however, draws families from a somewhat wider geography and is one of the largest in our movement with over 350 children. Its diverse, predominantly Jewish makeup is seemingly part of its appeal.
This JCC operates perhaps the most impressive food pantry, called the S.H.O.P., that I have seen. To someone passing through the modest strip mall in which it is located, it appears to be a boutique marketplace for fresh produce and name brand foodstuffs of every variety. Gracious benefactors provide for the rent and the inventory—and those in need can shop themselves or have orders prepared for pick-up or delivery. A team of social workers and counselors occupy small offices located behind the store, and a rear entrance allows clients to discretely come and go.
The JCC’s Grove Avenue location is home to its Chaverim Program for Holocaust Survivors. Several dozen survivors can be found at the J each week for programs that include discussions, speakers, counseling, and individual service and assistance. Notwithstanding the inevitable losses, the number of survivors in this community is stable as many continue to move to the Five Towns to be closer to children and grandchildren. Cathy, Chaverim’s extraordinary lead professional, has been with the program for 36 years, having earned two degrees in gerontology and a degree in nursing along the way to better serve her remarkable clientele. The lives and experiences of her charges permeate her very soul; her commitment to their care, their dignity, and their sense of community is inspiring. That she was raised in a large and religious Irish-Catholic family is simply another notable aspect of who we are—the more than 30,000 people who work full and part-time at JCCs across the continent.
No pool. No fitness center. Not a single member. The only other JCC I visited to make that claim is in Boulder, Colorado. The Boulder JCC, its Jewish community, facilities, and operating design, could hardly be more different. And yet— there are beautiful commonalities. A commitment to the engagement of young Jewish families through early childhood education programs unique to their constituencies, yet rooted in Jewish content, Jewish values, and the Jewish calendar. A determination to help neighbors in need which gave rise to a flagship food pantry in Cedarhurst and a working farm in Boulder—both operated mainly by volunteers. Membership at these JCCs is not a transactional matter but rather a function of the warm embrace of all who pass through their doors.
Perhaps the common denominator is that each of these JCCs reflects the motivations, concerns, and commitment of the local Jewish community leaders who bring them to life. For a long time, most national and continental Jewish agencies operated with the belief that their accumulated wisdom and singular vision could inform and guide the work of their constituents wherever they were located. But as Jews disperse to every corner of North America, diversifying their own identities at each stop along the way—the communities themselves have become increasingly unique—requiring deeper insights, understanding, and sensitivity on the part of their national and continental partners. The transient nature of our community means that the “hub and spokes” days of organizational design have given way to a matrix model—where the connections between communities are as important as a community’s connection to its central agency.
Like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, each one is distinct. The central agency’s role is to figure out how best to adapt itself to fit each piece—and to provide the broad understanding necessary to put the pieces together. Only then can we appreciate the magnificence of the image in its entirety—a network of Jewish communities engaged in common cause—to deliver to the next generation of North American Jews a greater and more vibrant Jewish community than the one delivered to us.
Am Yisrael Chai! עם ישראל חי
President and CEO
JCC Association of North America